Can you Pass the Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Quiz? (Rudolph)

By Jeffrey Rudolph

While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was a marginal presence in 1948, it has since grown into a meaningful social and political force. And this community, true to its fundamentalist beliefs, is extremely illiberal and thus aggravates undemocratic tendencies in Israel. The longer Israeli leaders permit the state to finance the ultra-Orthodox, the more distorted Israel’s democracy and ultra-Orthodoxy will become, and the more difficult it will be to adopt and implement corrective policies.

The purpose of the following quiz is to explain how an introverted and poor ultra-Orthodox community has benefited from a stratified political environment to gain resources, influence, and exclusive rights.

The Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Quiz

1. What percentage of the Israeli Jewish population is ultra-Orthodox?

  • Approximately 10 percent. The proportion of ultra-Orthodox in the population keeps growing as the average ultra-Orthodox woman is likely to have eight to ten children in her lifetime.
  • At least “two major camps can be generally identified among religious Jews in Israel–the Orthodox ([or] National-Religious) and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim), each with its own subdivisions.” During the early 2000s, religious Jews “constituted about 17 to 20 percent of the Jewish population” of Israel. (Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Theocratic Democracy: The Social Construction of Religious and Secular Extremism, Oxford University Press, New York: 2010, 13, 21.)
  • The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities have very different histories. The Orthodox began in Eastern European Orthodox parties, “whose leaders attended Theodor Herzl’s first [Zionist] congress [in 1897]. They saw in Zionist return a rapturous messianism, not unlike the kind of notions you find today in evangelical movements in the United States….Early [Orthodox] groups…advocated for basing the state apparatus on [religious] strictures. So the [Orthodox] community never shrank from assuming power in any form, first in the Zionist movement, then in the state.” As a result, the Orthodox “have blended more or less comfortably into [Israel]; they acquired advanced degrees,…took management jobs…, and served in the army.” (Bernard Avishai, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last, Harcourt, New York: 2008, 87-8. Hereinafter referred to as, Avishai 2008.)
  • The ultra-Orthodox communities have “roots in the small ultra-Orthodox societies of Jerusalem and Safed, which lived for hundreds of years on money sent them by Eastern European acolytes, and which kept mainly to themselves while Zionism was taking shape….Dressed distinctively in black caftans and rounded hats, even on scorching summer days, they remain pietists connected to Diaspora sects…Haifa University demographer Arnon Sofer supposes their total number will be something upward of 20 percent of the Jewish population by 2020.” (Avishai 2008, 93-4.)
  • For a more detailed version of this quiz, please see:

2. When Israel became a state in 1948, what percentage of the Israeli Jewish population was ultra-Orthodox?

  • Approximately 1 percent.
  • It is important to note that in 1948 the great bulk of Jewish Israelis were confident that religious Jews, already marginal to the state, would only continue to diminish in significance. (In fact after World War II, the European center of ultra-Orthodox “culture was gone. In Palestine, their schools were few and starved for funds…”) (Gershom Gorenberg, The Unmaking Of Israel, Harper, New York: 2011, 38. Hereinafter referred to as, Gorenberg 2011.)

3. True or False: The great majority of rabbis welcomed Zionism at the turn of the 19th century.

  • False. Zionism “was among other things a rebellion against Judaism.” (Theodor Herzl and almost all the other Zionist Founding Fathers were convinced atheists.) When Herzl began his quest for a Jewish homeland, “almost all East European Jews were still living in a ghetto-like [religious] atmosphere, ruled by the rabbis. All these rabbis, almost without exception, saw Zionism as the great enemy…And not without reason. The Zionists were nationalists – adherents of the new European doctrine that human collectives are based primarily on ethnic origin, language and territory, not on religion. It was the opposite of the Jewish belief that Jews are the people of God, united by the obedience to his commandments….[And,] As everybody knows, God exiled his Chosen People from their land because of their sins. Some day God will forgive them and send the Messiah, who will lead the Jews, including the dead, back to Jerusalem. The Zionists, in their crazy desire to do so themselves, were not only committing a deadly sin, but actually rebelling against the Almighty who had expressly forbidden his people to enter the holy country en masse.”
  • In the first half of the 20th century Palestine, like America, was a place where many “young people left the [religious] fold under the influence of secular surroundings. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis discouraged emigration from Eastern Europe — with catastrophic consequences during the Holocaust.” (Gorenberg 2011, 38.)

4. Did Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, govern with parties of the far left or secular right?

  • Ben-Gurion built his coalitions not with the far left nor with the secular right but with the United Religious Front, an alliance of four Orthodox parties. “But there was a covenant between them: he would give them a free hand as far as Sabbath is concerned, as far as the conscription of religious young Jews is concerned, as far as issues of personal status was concerned, as long as they left him strategy and foreign policy.”
  • In Israel creating a majority backing for a government always requires building a coalition of several parties. This has been crucial to the ultra-Orthodox. For example, in 1977, for the first time, “Likud won a narrow plurality in parliament….And for the first time since 1953, Agudat Yisrael [an ultra-Orthodox political party] joined the ruling coalition.” The 1977 and 1981 coalition agreements produced “a long list of promises to Agudat Yisrael on religious and budgetary issues.” The ultra-Orthodox received more funding for their educational institutions, more strictures placed on businesses operating on the Sabbath, more government stipends for large families, and the “army removed the ceiling on draft deferments for [religious school] students.” (Gorenberg 2011, 174-5.)
  • Netanyahu’s 2013 coalition does exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties and, therefore, may lead to important changes that diminish the advantages the ultra-Orthodox have reaped from the state. However, as the number of ultra-Orthodox voters continues to grow, the challenge of reducing state money and other advantages for the ultra-Orthodox becomes more complex.

5. In 2012, what percentage of elementary schoolchildren in Israel were in ultra-Orthodox schools?

  • 33 percent. “In practice, the core curriculum lesson plan the Education Ministry is to enforce among [ultra-Orthodox] schools places a special emphasis on Bible and Talmud studies, which are allotted the most time out of all the subjects covered in the lesson plan. Such additional time for religious studies comes at the expense of secular subjects, such as mathematics, art, physical education and the sciences.”
  • It was Israeli government funding of compulsory, free education “that made it possible to open new ultra-Orthodox schools and pay steady salaries….The state helped fund ultra-Orthodox secondary schools along with others, but the high schools for [ultra-Orthodox] boys were yeshivot devoted entirely to religious studies….From there, young men—not only the few brilliant scholars, as in Europe before the Holocaust, but the mass—proceeded to advanced yeshivot.” And, it became commonplace for ultra-Orthodox to marry young and for the men to continue studying Torah in religious schools for married students. (Gorenberg 2011, 167-8.)

6. Why is English not taught at ultra-Orthodox schools?

  • Israel invests significant amounts of money in the independent educational systems run by ultra-Orthodox  political parties, however, “the boys who study there will never learn math, English, geography or civics. This is so they will never be able to earn a decent living and emerge from under the rabbis’ thumbs. Only a suicidal state would agree to have a large and growing sector live off allowances and grants, without learning core subjects, serving in the military or making a living.”
  • According to an ultra-Orthodox principal, “The moment a boy studies English, he’s more exposed to the wider world, and he naturally leaves religion, and he can even engage in intermarriage, like in America.” (Gorenberg 2011, 187.)

7. What percentage of ultra-Orthodox Israeli men aged thirty-five to fifty-four (prime working years) were not employed in 1979? 2008?

  • 1979: 20 percent; 2008: 65 percent. (Gorenberg 2011, 177, 178.)
  • Young ultra-Orthodox Israelis are becoming the world’s poorest Jewish population due to their employment prospects, declining financial support from parents, declining welfare allowances from the state, and their high number of children.
  • Young ultra-Orthodox couples, normally poor with plans for large families, “are desperate for inexpensive apartments….At the end of the 1980s, the government began using that [desperation to draw them] into the settlement enterprise.” In 1990, 350 ultra-Orthodox settlers moved into Beitar Illit and for apartments paid “$60,000, with the government providing a $50,000 interest-free mortgage. Four years later, the first residents arrived in what would become the town of Modi’in Illit, east of Tel Aviv. The two communities grew faster than any other settlements in the West Bank. By the end of 2009, they were also the two largest settlements, with a total of 81,000 residents…Virtually every extended [ultra-Orthodox] family in Israel now has members living” in occupied Palestinian territory. Therefore, they have “a vested interest in the territories” and have been converted to the extreme right by government action. (Gorenberg 2011, 185.)

8. True or False: Ultra-Orthodox society in Israel has changed little since 1948.

  • False. At Israel’s founding in 1948 ultra-Orthodox “society ‘was very different…It was a normal working society,’ similar to the rest of the Jewish population. The fertility rate was about the same….To get married, a man had to leave yeshivah [religious school] and find work. Rather than being a diorama of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust…Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state.” (Gorenberg 2011, 166.)
  • Ultra-Orthodox males from an early age are instructed to obey their revered rabbis in every aspect of life. And the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, unlike their pre-1948 forefathers, do “not need to interpret Jewish law pragmatically…for the sake of a working laity. [Thus, every] strict ruling become[s] the norm…Rather than seek to sanctify life in the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy [has] tried to build a sacred preserve…” (Gorenberg 2011, 172-3.)
  • In 2000, a leading Israeli newspaper published pictures showing ultra-Orthodox men at work in New York. “For the Israeli audience, photos of gainfully employed [ultra-Orthodox] men — a private detective, a truck driver,…a welder — were news on the level of man bites elephant.” (Gorenberg 2011, 166.)

9. What were the number of military deferments for ultra-Orthodox men in 1948? 1968? 1985? 2005? 2011?

  • 1948: 400; 1968: 4,700; 1985: 16,000; 2005: 41,000; 2011: 62,500. (Gorenberg 2011, 169, 175.)
  • Remaining a full-time student, as is the norm for ultra-Orthodox men, permits deferment from IDF service; if instead they choose to work they become subject to the draft. Thus the deferment locks young men into a life of religious study. (Gorenberg 2011, 169.)
  • It should be noted that a few hundred ultra-Orthodox men, who are particularly unsuited for religious study, do serve in the IDF in a special unit, Netzah Yehudah. (Gorenberg 2011, 192.)

10. Why don’t the ultra-Orthodox permit their children to serve in the army?

  • The ultra-Orthodox do not “allow their children to join the army, because of the justified fear that they will be contaminated by ordinary Israelis – learning about night clubs, TV…and, worst of all, listening to the voices of female soldiers singing – considered an absolute abomination in Jewish religious law.”
  • As long as Israel has a universal draft most Israelis believe, in order to respect the principle of equality, that ultra-Orthodox men should either serve in the military or perform civilian service. However, the ultra-Orthodox continue to resist either option. Secular Israelis don’t “understand that this is a fundamental issue of the source of authority. The [ultra-Orthodox] believe that their rabbis are the sole source of authority, not the state, and the rabbis oppose the draft because they wish to continue to maintain control over their oppressed flock.”
  • In stark contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox men do serve in the army. In fact, Orthodox premilitary academies “combine physical training and studies that boost motivation to serve and rise through the ranks” and are also designed to “create a cadre of ideologically committed Orthodox officers.” (Gorenberg 2011, 3.)

11. What percentage of graduates of advanced infantry officer training courses were Orthodox men in 1990? 2008? 2011?

  • 1990: 2.5 percent; 2008: 26 percent; 2011: 42 percent.
  • Due largely to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the First and Second Intifadas, the traditional secular elite was no longer as reliable as a source of combat soldiers and officers. In contrast, the 1967 and 1973 wars fed into Orthodox messianic fervor and, as a result, more Orthodox men “wanted to combine combat service and religious study.” (Gorenberg 2011, 139, 140.)
  • Many young Orthodox Jewish soldiers would not break religious law if the rabbis say not to. In 2004, “In the run-up to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip…former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, then the religious right’s leading authority on Jewish law, spoke out. He declared that religious soldiers must tell their commanders that they would no more follow an order to evacuate settlers than they would obey an order to eat pork….[The IDF had] an institutional interest in showing that all was well in the ‘people’s army,’ and did not acknowledge the full extent of resistance in the ranks. Moreover, the government and the army’s top command carefully chose who would carry out the disengagement in order to avoid dissent.” For example, “large numbers of Orthodox soldiers, were not assigned to evict civilians….All these measures were needed to remove 9,000 settlers, almost all from the Gaza Strip…” A meaningful withdrawal from the West Bank would be far more challenging to execute than the Gaza withdrawal. (Gorenberg 2011, 148, 151-2.)
  • An Orthodox soldier commenting on his 2005 refusal to obey orders to clean out material (not settlers, who had already left) from small West Bank settlements had this to say, “I can’t get up in the morning…to say prayers about the wholeness of the Land and its sanctity, and in the afternoon do something that’s the complete opposite.” The soldier was merely demoted one rank and remained an officer. (Gorenberg 2011, 136-7.)
  • “The problem is not one of individual conscientious objectors. There are already whole units that the IDF fears using.” (Gorenberg 2011, 162.)

12. True or False: During the 2009 Gaza Invasion, IDF soldiers were issued a booklet that stated that the Torah forbade giving up any of the Land of Israel.

  • True. (Gorenberg 2011, 154.)

13. True or False: Right after Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 the chief rabbi of the Israeli army, Shlomo Goren, pleaded with the Israeli commander, General Uzi Narkiss, to blow up the two mosques on the Temple Mount.

14. True or False: It was religious politicians who first promoted settlement in the occupied territories.

  • False. “Contrary to a common portrayal, secular politicians initiated settlement in the occupied territories and have continued to back it ever since. But the most ideologically committed settlers have been religious Zionists [Orthodox] — and the government’s support for settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism into a movement of the radical right.” (Gorenberg 2011, 8.)
  • “In 1991, there were less than 5,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in the West Bank [excluding East Jerusalem], comprising 5% of the settlers. By building thousands of apartments and providing an array of subsidies, Israel encouraged ultra-Orthodox Jews to move to the West Bank en masse during the Oslo years. Currently, over 30% of settlers are ultra-Orthodox. [By 2020] — and just by virtue of their high birth rate — they will comprise nearly 40% of the settlers.”

15. Which country is the world’s only democracy where Jews do not enjoy religious freedom?

  • The Chief Rabbinate makes Israel the world’s only democracy where Jews do not enjoy religious freedom.The Rabbinate has opposed any official recognition by Israel of non-Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox Judaism. (Reform and Conservative movements, which are dominant in the US Jewish community, have a limited presence in Israel.)
  • “Every ten years, two rabbis — one representing Ashkenazi, or European-descended Jews, the other of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern lineage — are appointed to co-lead the chief rabbinate. It’s the country’s supreme body overseeing civil services for Jews from cradle to grave — circumcision, [conversion,] marriage, divorce and burial….For the past two decades, ultra-Orthodox Jewish political parties have wielded outsized influence in governing coalitions and, in turn, held sway over the panel of 150 rabbis and politicians that appoints the new chief rabbis.” (Montreal Gazette, Feb. 14, 2013, A17.)

16. As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, were the Palestinians required to recognize Israel as a Jewish State?

  • No. “[T]he Palestinians have…repeatedly recognised the State of Israel…in the 1993 Oslo Accords (which were based on an Israeli promise to establish a Palestinian state within five years — a promise now shattered) and many times since. [However, beginning in 2011,] Israeli leaders have dramatically and unilaterally moved the goal-posts [by insisting] that Palestinians must recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State’.” “[R]ecognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy…”
  • “I suspect that the Jews of the USA or of Britain would regard it as anti-Semitic if Christians would propose that the USA or the United Kingdom should become a ‘Christian state’.” (Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, Pluto Press, London: 1997, 4.)

17. True or False: The Israeli political party, Shas, functions internally as a theocracy.

  • True. Elected members of Shas (and of United Torah Judaism, another ultra-Orthodox party) follow “orders from a rabbinic leadership.” (Gorenberg 2011, 176.)

18. Who, in a 2009 book widely discussed in the Israeli press, declared it religiously permissible to kill non-Jewish children because of “the future danger that will arise if they are allowed to grow into evil people like their parents”?

  • Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira. (Peter Beinart, The Crisis of Zionism, Times Books, New York: 2012, 166. Hereinafter referred to as, Beinart 2012.)

19. According to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and a recognised scholar on Jewish law — can a religious Jewish doctor break Sabbath rules to save the life of a non-Jew?

20. Who said the following? “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”

  • The quote was stated by Rabbi Yaacov Perrin at his eulogy of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the American Jewish settler who, on February 25, 1994, entered the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Muslim worshippers. (Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the late Israeli chief rabbi, “likewise declared, ‘A thousand Arabs are not worth one yeshiva student.’”) (Beinart 2012, 165.)
  • Goldstein’s motivation was clear: he “told friends he had a plan for ending the Oslo process. He stopped shooting only when Palestinians managed to kill him….Among [Goldstein’s] posthumous admirers was Bar-Ilan University law student Yigal Amir. On November 4, 1995, Amir carried out his own plan to prevent dividing the Land of Israel. He assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.” (Gorenberg 2011, 107.)
  • “[D]ov Lior, the head of the West Bank’s rabbinical council, has called Baruch Goldstein…, ‘holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.’” (Beinart 2012,  23.)

21. True or False: In 2010 Shmuel Eliahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, published a manifesto saying that Jewish religious law prohibited selling or renting homes or land to non-Jews anywhere in the Land of Israel.

  • True. Rabbi Eliahu went on to write, “Their way of life is different from ours, they despise us and they harass us to the point of endangering lives.” When “Eliahu came under public criticism, he gathered the signatures of the state-salaried rabbis of dozens of other towns and settlements for his racist interpretation of Judaism.” (Gorenberg 2011, 217-8.)


Jeffrey Rudolph, a Montreal college professor, was the Quebec representative of the East Timor Alert Network and presented a paper on its behalf at the United Nations. He was awarded the prestigious Cheryl Rosa Teresa Doran Prize upon graduation from McGill University’s faculty of law; has worked as a chartered accountant at one of the world’s largest public accounting firms; and, has taught at McGill University. He has prepared widely-distributed quizzes on Israel-Palestine, Iran, Hamas, Terrorism, Saudi Arabia, US Inequality, the US Christian Right, and Hezbollah. These quizzes, and a more detailed version of the Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Quiz, are available at:


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5 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    What the piece omits is mention of the percentage of extreme orthodox in Jerusalem-Al Quds.

    Reports last year showed them occupying whole neighbourhoods and subjecting outiders to harrassment varying between assaults on women they deemed improperly dressed and spitting on Christian clergy. They insist that all and sundry observe their Sabath. There were reports of a riot caused by the opening of a multistory car park on a Saturday.

    One of the big dangers I see in this growing Juadaisation of Jerusalem-Al Quds is the isolation of the Haram al Sharif. There are already lunatic groups with US backing whose objective is the erection of a Third Temple on the site of the previous one.

    As this would involve the destruction of the Haram al Sharif and the the Al Akhsa mosque, such sacrilege would be an immediate, and in my view, justified Casus Belli, and in fact for a military intervention by NATO.

    The only consolation is that the long term prospects for an Israeli state with a 30% Extreme Orthodox unemployable population are dim. They will as President Ahmedinejad is reported as saying disappear from the geography of the Middle East.

    What we havent seen so far are scenarios about how this inevitable demographic event might be coped with. Would Europe and the US want to accept six or seven million refugees, even if they are dual passport holders? This might provide the theme of one of your thoughtful and insightful essays.

    • These are hardly “lunatic groups”.

      The Temple Institute headed by Rabbi Chaim Richman is gearing toward reconstruction of the Third Temple; its operations have the Temple Foundation as a fund-rasing arm. Richman has closely communicated with Christians in the U.S. who see him as someone who will fulfill Israel’s destiny as a nation.

      Within the Christian Zionist community in America, there are very influential evangelists who have close ties to Israel’s political leadership and the Republican Party. Prominent Christian Zionist evangelists include Pastor John Hagee of Texas, Rev. Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe of Metro Detroit. Their public statements and public writings contain vitually no criticism of Israel’s blatant human rights violations against Palestinians – it is ignored. Their focus on Palestinians reference covenants in the P.L.O.’s charter calling for Israel’s destruction and the general animosity of Arabs toward Israel. These Christian Zionists are predominantly Baptist and Pentecostal denominations.

      Pastor John Hagee, in one of his books, concedes he is well aware that demolition of the Dome of the Rock may be necessary to construct the Third Temple and this will likely cause extreme violence by Islamic adherents, including a possible war against Israel.

      These Christian Zionists do not care about Israel in a political sense nor bother themselves with the ongoing struggle for social equality in Israeli society, but see Israel’s existence as a Christian theological imperative that must be supported as all costs.

      This all is in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic Church who withheld diplomatic recognition of Israel until they committed themselves to move toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The Roman Catholic leadership has been primarily concerned with the welfare of Palestinian Catholics – as opposed to Jewish or Israeli interests. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has made the human rights violations against Palestinians a top priority in pastoral letters.

      The Quakers have also had a long and profound relationship with the Palestinian people that continue to this day. This includes the establishment of the top centers of learning in the West Bank. The first Quaker school in the West Bank was founded in 1869 in Ramallah. The Quaker community of Ann Arbor, Michigan spearheaded a boycott vote of Israeli goods at a local food co-op and have joined in protest demonstrations against Israel in front of Ann Arbor’s largest synagogue.

      The Christian Zionist movement has opposed the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and exert great influence on Capitol Hill on Israel/Palestinian issues – unlike Catholics or Quakers. Falwell’s Moral Majority was a key reason Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and Jack Van Impe had a close relationship with George H.W. Bush. Pastor Hagee has been a personal friend of every Israeli PM since Menachem Begin and boasts of the time when Yitzhak Rabin, as prime minister, actually stood up and applauded him at a fund-raising dinner.

      The pro-Third Temple Christian Zionist movement is not a “lunatic group” but a lobby that is extremely powerful and operates out of theological-based blind obedience to Israeli interests without due regard to the inequities of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or the admitted inflaming of Muslim communities that they recognize would occur by the destruction of the Dome of the Rock to construct the Third Temple as proposed.

      • They are lunatic groups.

        It’s just that in Israel and the US, lunatic groups have real power over governments with real weaponry.

  2. This is a good study.

    Too many Americans view Israeli Jews as culturally monolithic however the truth is that Israel is a “melting pot” of various nationalities and religious denominations within Judaism. These distinct groups are of often varying political persuasions and often have had conflicts with each other.

    Israeli society’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews and, historically Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, have been discriminatory.

    Ultraorthodox Jews are an example of a group under current criticism by political parties such as Yesh Atid for what has been viewed as receiving unjustified privileges.

  3. “Israel invests significant amounts of money in the independent educational systems run by ultra-Orthodox political parties, however, “the boys who study there will never learn math, English, geography or civics. This is so they will never be able to earn a decent living and emerge from under the rabbis’ thumbs.” not much difference from the madrassas run by the extremist Islamists fundys.

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